Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Production photo from THE TOAD KNEW. Photo by Richard Haughton.
By Bec Willett
It’s a strange feeling, drinking a glass of Sprite but thinking it’s water. Neither is better, it’s just not what you thought it would be. Expectations are a tricky thing to manage, especially when it comes to shows touring from other countries. In this case, I’m referring to the acclaimed James Thiérrée’s creation THE TOAD KNEW currently making a week’s pit stop as the inaugural production in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new space The Yard. Having worked as a designer with circus performers and been a long admirer of post-modernist directors with imposing aesthetics, I went into THE TOAD KNEW expecting to drink in some of the most magnificent theatrical design I’ve seen – and I got it.
The design elements on this stage are not just well-thought-out, they are living beings – characters in their own right. In this world the curtains are chameleons, at first crackling fire, then silver galaxies, then golden oceans. Whatever form they take they have a magic to them, swallowing objects into what we can only imagine is another dimension which just as in the world of this production has different rules to that of our reality. The centerpiece, an angular contraption of geometric lights and ropes, tenses, rises, pulses and floats above a grimy floor punctuated with steam-punk artifacts: a tank of murky water, a steely crane, a piano that plays itself. It is this contraption that is the focus of much of the show, the characters using light, water, and sound and spending their energy on trying to get it to work. This presents us with a collage of delightful visual play, but I can imagine that there is a cascade of cues backstage. The precision with which the technical and production team create wonderment is a masterclass in theatricality in and of itself.
This technical expertise is carried through to the actors themselves. With flawless execution, the performers morph in and out of myriad styles of dance and physical theatre, all with the goal of character and relationship exploration. Underscored by the haunting, breathy tones of Ofélie Crispin, these are performances embodied with such humanity, such delight, and such specificity of technique that there always seems to be a giggle or a sigh ready to escape from the depths of your belly. Then, after an hour or so, the belly gets tired, and the giggle starts to wane and a question starts to take its place – “who is this toad anyway and when is it going to appear?” Of course, when said toad does appear, the characters are elated and we can’t help but share in their joy. But there’s an itching question that keeps the belly-giggle at bay: why? What was so important about this toad? And what did it know?
I can’t escape the feeling that perhaps I missed something. The technique and joy of this production were more than satiating, but the muddiness of the story left me wanting. I suspect that my Australian-American palette rather than the French one from which this was conceived told me I was drinking Sprite, when in fact, it was water – very excellent water.
THE TOAD KNEW runs through 9/23. For more information visit chicagoshakes.com